We have studied the effects of different neurotrophins on the survival and proliferation of rat cerebellar granule cells in culture. These neurons express trkB and trkC, the putative neuronal receptors for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and neurotrophin-3 (NT-3) respectively. Binding studies using iodinated BDNF and NT-3 demonstrated that both BDNF and NT-3 bind to the cerebellar granule neurons with a similar affinity of approximately 2 x 10(-9) M. The number of receptors per granule cell was surprisingly high, approximately 30 x 10(-4) and 2 x 10(5) for BDNF and NT-3, respectively. Both NT-3 and BDNF elevated c-fos mRNA in the granule neurons, but only BDNF up-regulated the mRNA encoding the low-affinity neurotrophin receptor (p75). In contrast to NT-3, BDNF acted as a survival factor for the granule neurons. BDNF also induced sprouting of the granule neurons and significantly protected them against neurotoxicity induced by high (1 mM) glutamate concentrations. Cultured granule neurons also expressed low levels of BDNF mRNA which were increased by kainic acid, a glutamate receptor agonist. Thus, BDNF, but not NT-3, is a survival factor for cultured cerebellar granule neurons and activation of glutamate receptor(s) up-regulates BDNF expression in these cells.